The First Covenant, Part One: The Contract
“It came about when the sun had set, that it was very dark, and behold, there appeared a smoking oven and a flaming torch which passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I have given this land, From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates…”’ (Genesis 15:17-18, NASB)
I think any Christian that has a real grasp of the Bible has this down: God made a covenant with Abraham at the beginning of the Old Testament, but Jesus died to create a better covenant at the start of the New Testament. The old covenant was specifically for the Jewish people. The new was for Jew and Gentile. The old
promise was the law and the new promise was grace.
And sometimes, Christians like to throw away the old, never circling back to it because it was replaced and expanded to include them. Sometimes, we’re too self-involved to see the beauty in the old covenant because there was no clause that made a way for us– not yet. But I think the more I study this little pit-stop in the middle of Genesis, the more I am awestruck by the beauty of this moment where the old covenant came into being. And I think it’s important that we all have a healthy appreciation for the groundwork that made the way for God’s new promises to us.
So let’s start with the actual contract, drawn up in Genesis 15, verses 9 and 10: “So He said to him, “Bring Me a three-year-old heifer, and a three-year-old female goat, and a three-year-old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.” Then he brought all these to Him and cut them in two, and laid each half opposite the other; but he did not cut the birds.” (NASB)
Back in this day, this was how you set up a contract. There was no paper with a dotted line that was drawn up by legal representation. Instead, you set up fragments of an animal and in Abram’s case, he halved a cow, a goat, and a ram, placing the halves opposite from each other so that there was a sort of walkway in between the pieces. This, for lack of a better term, was the dotted line. It was the custom that the signers of a contract would pass through the fragments while stating the terms of the covenant to “sign” the contract.
I’m sure, through our modern lens, this all seems pretty extra and unnecessary. I’m sure some might be wondering why God can’t leave these poor animals out of this. What it boils down to is that a lot of this stuff was just the custom of the times, but much further than that, it illustrates the solemn nature through which God was making this promise to Abram.
There is a value to blood that is not lost on God. Jesus’ blood had to be shed in order to cover our sins. Blood was spread over the doors of the Israelites during the final plague on Egypt. Abel’s blood cried out to God when he was murdered by his brother. Why? The answer lies in Genesis 9:4, “But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood” (ESV). God recognizes blood as life. In this verse and the ones surrounding it, God is giving Noah and his family a new standard of living, officially giving man permission to eat animals. But even in this new freedom, there was a stipulation: that man does not eat meat with the blood still in it. This, in and of itself, shows that God regards blood as a substance with a special quality; the substance that helps sustain life.
So by making a promise over spilled blood, God was showing Abram just how crazy serious he was about giving Abram a son, making Abram’s descendants into a nation that would dwell in the land God had for them, and ultimately, that the Savior of all the world would be a product of Abram’s own bloodline. This wasn’t the first time God made Abram this promise, but this time, God wanted to show Abram without a shadow of a doubt, that God was going to do what He promised He would. He didn’t want Abram to keep questioning that promise, and He wanted Abram to be sure that God wasn’t going to just forget or pass him over in supplying that contract.
The laid out contract was gory and serious to convey just how high the stakes were for both God and Abram. Abram wanted the promise of a son; without one, his inheritance would be assigned to someone who held no familial relation with Abram– and that was a devastating thought in a culture where your bloodline was everything. But God, by agreeing to make a covenant with Abram and ultimately passing through the bloody scene was agreeing that if He did not make good on His side of the terms, that the same gory fate would befall Him.
That means that God, the Creator and the Father, agreed that if each item of the covenant was not fulfilled, then He would essentially forfeit His own deity and die a gruesome death. And we know, with a God so perfect and sovereign, there is no possible way that He could die that death or fail to come through on His agreement with Abram.
The kicker is this: We can rest assured that if it were even possible for God to fail Abram, He would have kept His word and died that death. How do we know that? Because He died that death anyway. God sent Himself in the form of His Son, Jesus, to die and shed that blood so that a new and better covenant could be laid out and signed. This first contract in Genesis 15 was made to lay the groundwork for the one that was to come, but it also foreshadowed what was on the line to make way for the new covenant with us.
If we had any idea who God was or the lengths He is constantly going to bring us back to our rightful place of intimacy with Him, we would be able to see this simple truth: He has never stopped loving us, and He will go to any lengths to show us just how seriously He loves us. If we heard Him the first time He promised us something and we just believed He would do it, how much more could He do in the name of that love?
We’ll probably never know the answer to that, but here is some comfort today: God never gives upon us. He gently reminds us of His promises as He continues to remain faithful to the work He already started, even when we were questioning His ability to come through and be God.